Monday, February 26, 2024

A Biblical Reply to Consumerism

Daniel FS Choi(New Zealand)

1. Introduction
The consumeristic culture has had a huge impact on the church, which must not run away but face its challenges. Some churches are faithful to the faith and reject consumerism but do not know how to cope with or adapt to the times. Other churches keep pace with consumerism by marketing Christianity.

2. Consumerism
Consumerism is the culture or ideology of excessive consumption of material goods or services. To consume more, people keep on buying and disposing previous products. The process is accelerated by updated information available on the internet. Since the fulfilment of needs concerns the meaning of life, consumerism can be regarded as a religion. The restlessness of shopping and disposing sets the spiritual tone for consumerism. It is a way of looking for meaning and identity and connecting with other people. Consumer culture relates to beliefs evolving around commodities. The result is that people no longer care for their ultimate concern, but for “the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security” (Jason Clark). In the consumerist religion, “salvation” is achieved in and through the movement of consuming, but satisfaction is never realised.

The impact of consumerism on Christianity is immense. Individuals who seek personal satisfaction may demand that God be given a protracted leave of absence. Jason Clark sees consumerism as a jealous god who would not permit our souls and bodies to be related to the body of Jesus, His church.

3. Effects on the Church
Craig Bartholomew points out that “One can ignore one”s cultural context, but it is impossible to escape it.” We find that some churches today engage in commercializing religious products and some Christians are shopping around churches. Mark Clavier points out that, in Europe, “faced with steep decline and a swiftly changing society, the Church has adapted to consumerism both deliberately through policy decisions and unintentionally as a result of the transformation of Christians into conspicuous consumers.” This is seen in the commercialization of Christianity in all aspects from contemporary Christian music products to the many forms of devotional practice. To be conspicuous consumers implies that they are also not committed members of the Church.

“Eternity” is diluted to be unimportant. People are uninterested in spending time, paying effort, and committing to discipleship principles. David Wells warns that when the church replaces the biblical worldview by consumerism and yields to the consumerist culture, it has lost its nerve, its soul, and its reason for being. The detrimental effect of consumerism is that it denies the meaning of creation, community, and God. Further, consumerism as a lifestyle with religious overtones is an idol that competes for Christ”s rightful role as Lord of all. Unfortunately, many Christians are shopping for churches for the particular need they feel wanting. However, even if they could find “bread” and “water”, they will only reap emptiness and remain in restlessness as they can only find rest in God”s word (cf. Amos 8:11).

4. A Critique of the church in consumerism
Churches face the impact of consumerism from two opposite sides. One side thinks that marketing Christianity is contrary to the core principles of the faith. The opposite side wishes to keep up to the current consumption culture to reach out to the lost “consumers”.

Those who reject consumerism point out that a consumerist church usually employs soft-sell techniques to sell the Christian message. The church could emphasise or teach a health-and-wealth “gospel” but refrain from touching on judgment, suffering and the cost of discipleship. It may avoid teaching on commitment and stewardship but promote the entertainment of contemporary music and inner healing. This renders the church to be a secular lifestyle, a culture, or a country club.

Church leaders who embrace the marketing approach argue that research results show an awareness of the gaps that exist between churches and those they would like to serve. Indeed, the church ministry will be more effective if it combines appropriate marketing practice and a genuine commitment to Christ and the biblical faith.

5. A faithful community in consumerism
To relate the Christian faith effectively to the consumerist culture, Jason Clark suggests using the narrative theology, a type of theology that relates the story of the consumerist culture to the narrative of Scripture. We propose to reply to consumerism by the Samaritan woman account in John 4:1-42 by examining five socio- or theological concepts :namely, restlessness, existential threat, relatedness, oikos, and koinônia.

John 4:13-14 restlessness.
While the Samaritan woman seeks continuously for a satisfied marital life, Jesus says His water can quench all thirst. This matches with W. T. Cavanaugh”s point that “The restlessness of consumerism causes us constantly to seek new material objects. The solution to our dissatisfaction is not the continuous search for new things but a turn toward the only One who can truly satisfy our desires.”

John 4:16-18, 26 meaning of life
Jesus points out the persistent struggle of the Samaritan woman in seeking or fulfilling the meaning of her life. This is similar to Christians who try to find meaning in life by showing off purchases for recognition of their faith. Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah, the only one who can give meaning to her life.

John 4:28-29 relatedness.
The woman first came alone to draw water. Now she goes to meet the men in the city. She is related and she is not alone. She now finds her purpose of life. Similarly, the church has to be a place where people can relate to each other in a meaningful way. This is the original intention on God when He created us.

John 4:40 home
The Samaritans ask Jesus to stay with them for two days. The Lord therefore lives among them. They find home with the Lord. Mark Clavier points out that “the church needs to begin to conceive of itself apart from consumerism in order to fulfil its mission to the world. Central to my (Clavier”s) argument is the idea of the oikos, or home, understood here as a visible, placed community with its own defining narrative, obligations and largely unchosen relationships.”

John 4:41 fellowship
Those Samaritans who believed have a fellowship with the woman. Gary Badcock states that a church is defined by the love of members for one another, so much so that the fellowship it lives is a realization and sign of its fellowship with God. This is in contrast with a consumerist individual who seeks only to gratify his or her own desire without thinking of the need of others.

6. Concluding remarks
In this essay, we point out that consumerism is a secular religion. In a consumerist society, a consumer is definitely not a committed church member. They soft-sell the gospel message but avoid the warning of judgment or give up teaching the cost of discipleship. We reply to the consumerist culture by a narrative theology based on the account of the Samaritan woman. Christ gives life and meaning to a lonely individual struggling in the consumeristic society.

2